Publishing Literary Translations CLMP Roundtable

The following represents a redacted transcript of the CLMP Virtual Roundtable, which took place Thursday, November 18th, 2010, at 3pm, EST via AIM. This roundtable was attended by CLMP member publishers and members of the American Literary Translators Association (ALTA).


Chad W. Post is the director of Open Letter Books, a relatively new press at the University of Rochester dedicated to publishing contemporary literature from around the world. In addition, he is the managing editor of Three Percent, a blog and review site that promotes literature in translation and is home to both the Translation Database and the Best Translated Book Awards. His articles and book reviews have appeared in a range of publications including The Believer, Publishing Perspectives, the Wall Street Journal culture blog, and Quarterly Conversation.

Margaret Schwartz teaches in the department of Communication and Media Studies at Fordham University.  Her translation of Macedonio Fernandez’s Museum of Eterna’s Novel appeared from Open Letter in February 2009.

Chad Post: Margaret, can you tell us a bit about how you got into translation?

Margaret Schwartz: It really had mostly to do with Macedonio…a way of reading him more carefully. I wanted to find a way to do archival work. I hadn’t translated anybody before. I wanted to get closer to this fascinating writer, and translation seemed like the best way to do that, get ‘inside’ his mind somehow.

Chad Post: Just in case anyone doesn’t know, Margaret translated Macedonio Fernandez’s The Museum of Eterna’s Novel for Open Letter, a book that happens to be our best-selling title. A strange phenomenon, considering that Macedonio is long dead, the book has 57+ prefaces, and it’s generally pretty difficult.

I obviously know this story, but others might be interested in knowing how you came to translate this for us.

Margaret Schwartz: Well I had been working on it for years, literally.  I had a Fulbright and I was back at Iowa working on Macedonio in their translation workshop. Chad came to participate in a forum on media and print. We were chatting afterwards and he asked me what I was working on. I said, “You won’t have heard of him,” but instead Chad said, “I’ve been trying to get the rights to that for the past five years!”  I was amazed.  Usually no one has heard of him. Anyway I was working on selections because I’d been told it would be hard to publish one of his (very difficult) books in its entirety, but Chad was interested in the Museum of Eterna’s Novel, which is his masterpiece. It was so brave and amazing of Open Letter. So we agreed on that one and I went at it for real. Chad went to Argentina to wrangle the rights. It was great.

Chad Post: This really points to the serendipitous nature of publishing. Occasionally we have situations like this, where we’re looking for a translator, but oftentimes, translators bring us projects.

Robert Booras, Upset Press: Why are the “selected” works preferable?

Chad Post: I’m not sure they are. I personally like reading a full novel rather than “selected bits.”

Margaret Schwartz: I was told, in the case of Macedonio, it was because he is often pithy and funny, and just as often long-winded and confusing. So they wanted to separate the wheat from the chaff.  That’s also how he had been published in Argentina and in the only English translation.

Chad Post: There was a book of Macedonio’s writings that came out back in the 80’s. It didn’t make much of an impression on the culture and I think it’s partially because it felt incomplete.

Margaret Schwartz: Yes, and there was also Lindstrom’s monograph from Texas, which was criticism. It’s hard with multiple translators, too, because you sacrifice any unity of voice/style.

Chad Post: That’s very true. I think from a publishing/marketing standpoint, it’s much better to have a single work from a single translator.

Jeffrey Lependorf, CLMP: Margaret: how long did the translation take to complete, and Chad, at what point in this process did you get involved?

Margaret Schwartz: I had been working on and off on bits and pieces for about 10 years, but the actual manuscript was done in about a year. Six months of hardcore everyday work, plus editing time afterwards

Chad Post: I was involved in acquiring the rights (which is a hell of a story involving loud music and barking dogs), and spent most of my time figuring out how to market the book. E.J. Van Lanen (our senior editor) worked on the copyediting. Although I did edit the pieces we submitted for a NYSCA grant (which we received).

Robert Booras, Upset Press: What is a standard (is there a standard) contract between publishers, i.e. the foreign language publisher and the translating publisher?

Chad Post: The contract that we use for these books is fairly similar to ones for books written in English. The contract covers “world English rights” (or North American rights) and we usually pay an advance of $1,500 to $5,000 for these rights (which isn’t much, but seems fairly standard). As for royalties, we pay 8.5%-10% for hardcovers, and 6.5% for paperbacks to the original rights holder on translated titles.

The sub-rights are a bit trickier—we generally don’t get film/tv, and obviously don’t get foreign language rights, but we do try and get sub-rights to sell our edition to UK, Australian or Canadian presses.

Jeffrey Lependorf, CLMP: And can we assume at this point you also try for digital rights (of the translation, that is)?

Chad Post: Yes, we do, and in some cases this isn’t a problem, especially nowadays. When we started, a lot of foreign presses/authors were wary. They figured all their books would be pirated, given away for free, etc., and there was no standard for royalties. Now we offer 25% on net receipts of digital sales to the original rights holder, and have far fewer problems than back in 2007. The Kindle and the iPad sort of created a set of standards and a way of distributing ebooks that makes sense to those outside of America.

Robert Booras, Upset Press: Is it standard to pay royalties to original rights holder, considering we have way less budget?

Chad Post: Yes.  It’s standard to pay royalties against the advance.

Robert Booras, Upset Press: What about compensation for the translator?

Chad Post: That depends. Ideally, through a mix of funding and whatnot, we try to pay $100/1000 words. And for poetry, it’s different, more like $1.50/line.  We give all of our translators 2% royalties on hardcover, 1% on paper/e-versions.

Jeffrey Lependorf, CLMP: Can we clarify what is going to whom? I think perhaps there’s some confusion here between books you acquire directly and books you get the rights to and then have translated.

Chad Post: For Macedonio we acquired the rights from his Argentine publisher, Corregidor. We paid them…something. Maybe a $2,500 advance against 6.5% royalties. After the sales reached the level at which 6.5% of the list price exceeded the advance, we started making annual royalty payments.

Robert Booras, Upset Press: Is there a place to view a sample contract like the one you had with Corregidor?

Jeffrey Lependorf, CLMP: For legal reasons, we can’t offer a standard, but generally publishers will share with each other offline. Margaret: did you start your translation work not worrying about rights?

Margaret Schwartz: I had indeed started without thinking about the rights. I knew people in Argentina/in his family and thought if need be it would be no big deal (ha, ha). But I also wasn’t working professionally as a translator.  I wasn’t actively seeking a publisher. I was really working on it on my own, as a grad student, so I doubt my experience is representative and I’ve often heard people say that they would never even start a project without rights in hand.

Dick Lourie, Hanging Loose Press: Should it be the translator’s responsibility to clear rights before approaching a publisher? That is our usual practice.

Chad Post: When a translator brings us a project, we assume that they’ve at least checked to make sure the rights are free.  That said, if we like a sample, we’ll get in touch with the rights holder ourselves just to double-check.

Dick Lourie, Hanging Loose Press: Then does the translator generally do the job of acquiring rights for the work to be translated?

Chad Post: Not necessarily…or at least not in our case. We expect the translator to know if rights are free because it would be a waste of time to evaluate a manuscript only to find out that Penguin acquired the rights a year ago.  But once we decide to do the book, we get in touch with the rights holder (publisher, author, agent) and make an offer for the “English-language rights.” It helps if the translator knows who holds the rights, but that’s not always the case.  Sometimes these things require a bit of detective work.

Jeffrey Lependorf, CLMP: What about a case where the author is dead.  Perhaps the work is not technically in the public domain, but there are no apparent heirs and the publisher is out of business, etc.?

Chad Post: That’s the worst.  It’s happened a few times, and in every case, we ended up shelving the book. That happens both for translations and books written in English.

Margaret Schwartz: In my case the fact that Macedonio was dead and the original publication posthumous made things a bit more complicated.

Jeffrey Lependorf, CLMP: So in general, it’s safe to say you wouldn’t risk publishing something without rights in hand.

Margaret Schwartz: I don’t think I’d make it that hard and fast a rule.  I’d say don’t publish unless you know whom to ask about rights. When I published in the Iowa Review, for example, I wasn’t paid. I just sent Corregidor a note saying it was going to be published.

Chad Post: I wouldn’t publish without rights in hand, but Open Letter is part of the University of Rochester, and the U of R doesn’t look very kindly on lawsuits.

Dick Lourie, Hanging Loose Press: I have another question on another topic: As an editor, I work closely with translators, quite frequently suggesting alternate wording, in effect coming close to co-translating. I’ve been wondering if other editors do this as well?

Chad Post: Definitely! We make suggestions, ask questions, try and puzzle out tricky sentences or issues, etc. We also like our translators to be in touch with the original author. It gives us a bit more leeway and confidence in editing a particular text. It’s not always possible—the author may not know any English whatsoever, or, as with Macedonio, may not be living—but having the author’s involvement is helpful.

Benn Williams, ALTA Member: Is it common for translators to propose a project with funding in hand (e.g., NEH grant, postdoc, or sabbatical)? Is it safe to assume that a publisher will look more approvingly at such a project (assuming good quality of sample translation, etc.)?

Chad Post: That does happen on occasion, and I’d love for it to happen more frequently. It’s definitely true that publishers appreciate knowing that there’s some funding available. This is even the case with the cultural institutes that fund translation costs. For instance, we look favorably on, say, a book from Germany that the German Book Office has promised to help fund. That said, we do make decisions first and foremost on the quality of the text itself. We do a ton of Latin American books, none of which receive funding from their respective governments.

Benn Williams, ALTA Member: Would you work with the translator to propose the project to the German Book Office, or does the translator do that solo?

Chad Post: That depends on the country, but generally speaking, the publisher submits the paperwork for the grant. For instance, with a Catalan book we’re doing, we submitted the application to the Ramon Llull Insitute in Barcelona. It included info on the book, copies of the contracts with translator and underlying rights holder and in the end, if they give us the money, we pay it to the translator.

Elizabeth Espadas, ALTA Member: What about the funding that is only available after the publisher commits to the project? How does one convince a publisher to look at it beforehand?

Chad Post: Almost all of the translation grants we apply for are only approved after we have contracts in place. That said, I’ve been in touch with funders beforehand about our projects, and as a result tend to feel pretty confident that they’re willing to fund us.

Benn Williams, ALTA Member: Do you insert a clause in such contracts saying that the deal is possibly off if no source of funding is found?

Chad Post: We’ve never done that. I know of publishers that establish two rates of payment to translators based on funding. For instance, they’ll say “we’ll guarantee you $2,000, but if we get funding we’ll give you all of it…”

Jeffrey Lependorf, CLMP: Chad, would you say most of your projects are initiated by you (then seeking out a translator) or by translators coming to you with what they are working on already?

Chad Post: It’s about 70/30 in favor of projects coming to us. A lot of times, these things come together. With Dubravka Ugresic, for instance, we wanted to do the book and the agent already knew a translator working on it with Dubravka’s approval. Alejandro Zambra was pretty much the same thing. But we do take translator recommendations really seriously, while actively seeking out titles from around the world that no one seems to be working on.

Jeffrey Lependorf, CLMP: Once you have a contract in place, is there generally a deadline component for the translator to complete the work?

Chad Post: There has to be a deadline, otherwise I’d go MAD trying to figure out catalogs, marketing plans, etc. But they don’t always *cough* abide by the deadline. We try and build in a year between the date of completion of the translation and the date of publication.

Jeffrey Lependorf, CLMP: What sort of involvement might a translator have post-publication (compared to, say, the expectations of the original author with a non-translated work).

Chad Post: That depends a bit on the willingness and ability of the translator. Margaret’s been excellent to work with. Since she’s in NY and a great speaker, we were able to have her on a panel at the Americas Society.

Margaret Schwartz: I’ve done a few things in NYC. It’s fun!

Chad Post: We try and get all our translators to do things—send us list of possible reviewers, hype the book to friends, give readings—but some are more oriented that way than others.

Margaret Schwartz: I also think that since Open Letter is rather a smallish operation, it’s a goodwill sort of thing with all of us. We are as active as we can be in the translation world. I did a talk at CUNY with another Open Letter translator, Margaret Carson

Chad Post: I do believe it’s important for translators to be as active as possible. They’re the best advocates for the work—especially when the original author is halfway around the world, or possibly unable to speak English.

Margaret Schwartz: We’re all aware that translators are all-too-often invisible, and we want to work against that, and support each other.

Benn Williams, ALTA Member: Chad: In your experience with Dalkey Archive and Open Letter, who owns the copyright of a translation (generally speaking)?

Chad Post: The translator owns the copyright. They “lease” it to us while we have the rights to the book, but as soon as the book goes out of print, the rights revert to the translator.

Benn Williams, ALTA Member: Although with e-rights, I guess a book never goes out of print?

Chad Post: Actually, most contracts have terms…generally 10-15 years.  Then they are either renewed, or the book (all versions) are put out of print. Out of print clauses still define “in print” as including a physical book and a certain sales level per year.

Jeffrey Lependorf, CLMP: In seeking books to be translated, where do you look (I’m speaking specifically in places where you don’t speak the language at all)?

Chad Post: When it’s a country like Lithuania that has a “Book Office,” we tend to look at the samples they provide and various recommendations. More importantly though, via the Frankfurt Book Fair, etc., we’ve created a network of publishers and editors to call upon for recommendations. And of course there are translators—who really come in handy when we’re talking about a place like China that doesn’t really promote its literature abroad in any useful way.

Jeffrey Lependorf, CLMP: And, back to basics, how can a publisher know if a translation (of an author they don’t know, in a language they don’t read…) is essentially any good? Obviously the writing itself has to work, but beyond that is there any due diligence involved?

Chad Post: I’m actually teaching a course on this next semester. It’s tricky and not all that tricky. You can frequently tell when something’s just plain wrong—when the translator misunderstood, or fell asleep and translated literally, or is just too close to a sentence to get it into English. But there is a trust involved between publisher and translator that s/he isn’t leaving out huge sections, inventing scenes, etc.

Margaret Schwartz: I can second that just from my experience in workshops where I read people’s translations without knowing the source text. You can identify a good translation.

Chad Post: Big, wealthy presses do have some of these checked when it’s a big name author, but we can’t afford to do that. There are meta-issues, though, in terms of what defines “good.” Is it that the book is as “Englished” as possible so that every “Midwesterner” gets every reference? Or is it that it retains some of the so-called “foreigness” and forces readers to realize they’re reading a book from another country?

Margaret Schwartz: I know Chad and I definitely discussed style. Macedonio is so tough, even in Spanish. So the question became, how much do you want me to even out syntax, etc?

Chad Post: It’s a very interesting, prickly question that can be analyzed from a few philosophical, practical, and marketing perspectives.

Jeffrey Lependorf, CLMP: When Gertrude Stein translated Hugnet into When The Flowers of Friendship Faded Friendship Faded I think she essentially wrote a brand new book (one we’re happy for, but still…).

Margaret Schwartz(4:00:03 PM): Right.  That’s one of the translation issues that’s intellectually/philosophically so interesting, and why ideologically it [translation] occupies such an odd place in our aesthetic culture. If it hadn’t been Stein, would we have been so happy?

Dick Lourie, Hanging Loose Press: We don’t wish to retain “foreignness”; we try hard to make the work seem idiomatic in English.

Chad Post: Which is interesting.

Margaret Schwartz: That’s a political decision.

Chad Post: Others have said this, but I totally agree.

Dick Lourie, Hanging Loose Press: Why political?

Chad Post: If a translation does something “experimental,” frequently editors/readers/reviewers say that translation is bad, whereas if an English writer does the same thing, it’s “experimental” and interesting.

Dick Lourie, Hanging Loose Press: I don’t mean that we “de-experimentalize” something; I mean that we want to take something in idiomatic Chinese (Spanish/Turkish, etc) and turn it into idiomatic English. I’m interested to pursue the idea that this is a political decision, if I understand Margaret correctly.

Margaret Schwartz: It’s political because to translate “idiomatically” is not some sort of transparent reality. It is cultural and specific. To some degree, doing that effaces the fact of the text’s translation and thereby contributes to the ongoing xenophobia of American literary culture. On the other hand, you want people to read your book. But to say that ‘idiomatic English’ is somehow a neutral term is difficult to maintain. That’s why translations are done again and again, like Doestoevsky. What is considered idiomatic in one specific moment is not always in the next, which points to the political/cultural/ideological constraints on what’s considered ‘good’ or aesthetic work. So when I say political, I just mean that you are taking a certain stand on these issues, whether you want to or not.

Chad Post: Did anyone see the review of the new Bovary in the recent London Review of Books? Julian Barnes wrote this brilliant piece about what one wants out of a translation, what it means to be “accurate,” etc.:

Dick Lourie, Hanging Loose Press: But I don’t understand what my alternative is, other than translating the text into something that’s idiomatic at the time of my translation.

Jeffrey Lependorf, CLMP: What if a book was written to sound like an earlier time? Idiomatic might mean an old-fashioned style of English, yes?

Dick Lourie, Hanging Loose Press: Sure.

Margaret Schwartz: Macedonio is like this—he uses very antiquated language even for his time. And in terms of what choice there is, there are lots of small moments, like whether to translate words like, for example “mate” as “tea” or leave it “mate,” even if the average reader isn’t sure what mate is.

Jeffrey Lependorf, CLMP: Or imagine something like Oscar Wao in German. How would a translator handle all of the slang?

Chad Post: or Finnegans Wake

Jeffrey Lependorf, CLMP: Yikes!

Margaret Schwartz: This is why what’s most frequently ‘translated’ in the global economy are big violent movies like Diehard.

Chad Post: This is why we a) need to appreciate translators for their creativity and artistic ability and b) work more at training them and providing forums for translators to discuss these issues.

Jeffrey Lependorf, CLMP: Did you two have a discussion about the general tone of the translation (if that’s the right word)?

Margaret Schwartz: Yes.

Chad Post: Very much so. We worked on a few of the prefaces to hit at this particular Macedonio tone, which is kind of archaic, very high-minded, baroque at times, and often fairly funny. It’s very particular and it would be easy to go too far in the “smoothening out” process and end up with something that would be more easily understood, but not nearly as poetic.

Margaret Schwartz: Yeah, I remember some interesting exchanges about run on sentences that we ended up keeping that way.

Chad Post: I’m very against making things more easily understood in the translation process. I read because I like the world the author has created, even if that means I have to struggle through odd metaphors and knotty sentences. That’s what makes it art. But other publishers disagree.

Margaret Schwartz: It took me a while to work up the confidence to really use that voice. Not-too-literal and not-too-smooth.

Chad Post: Translators amaze me for this.  It’s one thing to take someone’s work and tweak it; it’s another to get so into another writer’s world that you can convey his/her tone in your native language.

Margaret Schwartz: Honestly that’s the part I think is creative. It’s an odd rendering and probably sort of made-up in the most basic sense (that’s why when I read out loud from my translation, he sometimes sounds like an old man from Brooklyn).

Chad Post: Michael Emmerich has a lot of interesting things to say about the role of the translator. He’s very much against the idea that things are “lost in translation.” Instead, his argument is that before the book was translated, you, the English reader had nothing. Now you have a book that’s come into existence through the artistic work of two people, and that in the process of translating, the translator adds meaning to the book. He has an extended “ghosting” metaphor in which the translator is part of two worlds, hovering in between.

Dick Lourie, Hanging Loose Press: As an editor, I certainly wish to honor an author’s intent to be less easily understood, but also as an editor, I have to challenge the translator to be sure it’s not the translator’s problem instead of the author’s intent.

Margaret Schwartz: Definitely tricky.  And I wasn’t denying that—just pointing out that it’s political, not only aesthetic.

Chad Post: It’s interesting. And I think this depends a bit on which of two main principles you buy into. Are you a) trying to replicate for the English reader what the X-language reader experienced in reading the book, or, b) are you trying to make the translation a piece of art that may or may not be fully understood by anyone.

That carries with it a whole sub-set of questions. If the book is 100 years old, do you use the language of 1910? Or, what is the best way to achieve that emotional impact when the English reader is in a wholly different cultural situation.

Margaret Schwartz: Yeah, that’s the cultural contingency bit.

Chad Post: But it’s fascinating to be able to think about these mini-choices made along the way by the translator, the editor, etc. . .


About Erica Mena

Erica Mena is a Puerto Rican poet, translator, and book artist. Pronouns: they/them.
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